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George and Nick Clooney: 'Stop the Genocide in Darfur'
By Nick Clooney
Appalled by what was happening in Darfur, actor George Clooney invited his journalist dad to meet refugees in nearby Chad and see firsthand how they could help.

Q U I C K S C A N

Seeds of Genocide
How George and I Got Involved
Haunting Faces
How You Can Help Save Darfur
A Relief Worker's Story

Photo by Michael Herron

"IT’S RACISM and I can prove it.” The man’s face was dark, seamed and weathered; his desert clothing snowy white, his eyes steady.

We were sitting inside a half-tent in a refugee camp called Oure’ Cassoni, in the northeast corner of Chad. It is home to 29,000 people driven from their villages.

Chad borders Africa’s largest country, Sudan. Just a few miles from the camp is a region of Sudan bearing a name that is haunting the world’s conscience: Darfur.

The man to whom I spoke is one of two million Darfuris who have been driven from their villages, their homes burned, tens of thousands of them butchered, raped, tortured, beaten, their cattle killed or stolen, their wells poisoned—sometimes with the bodies of those who have been killed.

Incredibly, these horrors have been visited on the Darfuris by their own countrymen, with the tacit approval and even the active support of their own government in Khartoum.

The weathered Darfuri elder had listened patiently for the translation of my question, “Why are your neighbors killing you and driving you from your homes?”

After telling me it was racism, he went on to explain. “Think about this,” he said. “That man”—referring to President Omar Hassan al-Bashir—“is Sudanese, I am Sudanese. He is Muslim, I am Muslim. But he is Arab and I am African. He has contempt for me. He despises me. He wishes me to be dead.”

The elder had lost nine members of his family in the attack on his village more than a year earlier. The details of the attack were much the same as I heard from other refugees to whom I spoke. This is how it would happen:

First would come the bombers, old Russian-built aircraft, sometimes with the Sudanese insignia crudely painted out on the fuselage. They would rain down high-explosive or antipersonnel bombs on the helpless village. Typically, that would be followed by helicopter gunships, strafing anything that moved.

Then there would be a pause. It might be an hour. It might be several hours. Villagers, trying to recover from the shock of the air attack, would hear hoofbeats. Over the horizon would come the janjaweed, which can be translated as “devil riders.” These are rogue militia from the more northern reaches of Sudan, the nomad tribes. Mounted on horses or camels, armed to the teeth by the central government, these thugs are ruthless killers who destroy whatever they touch.

Seeds of Genocide

How did it all start? Here’s a thumbnail sketch. Sudan is the legendary land of the White and the Blue Nile, of ancient Nubia, of the heyday of the British Empire. Khartoum, in the north, is the capital and center of power. The United States has a very shaky relationship with Khartoum. It was in North Sudan that Osama bin Laden took refuge in the 1990s, where he nurtured al Qaeda. He was eventually forced out by international pressure and went to Afghanistan.

Since gaining independence after World War II, Sudan has seldom seen peace. The ongoing civil war between North and South Sudan ended only a year and a half ago, with the South gaining representation in Khartoum. Darfur, a poor district of Sudan to the west, wanted the same. Earlier in this decade, a small group of Darfuris attempted to get what they wanted by force of arms. Those incidents were seized on by Khartoum as an excuse to, it would appear, eradicate the entire population of the region.

My son, George, and two of our friends—photographer Mike Herron and David Pressman, a young veteran of the unfolding Darfur tragedy who had visited the region just weeks before our trip—were appalled at what was going on.

Just as disturbing was the apparent indifference of the rest of the world to this crisis, which President Bush has correctly called “genocide.” By last July, according to conservative estimates, 250,000 have died and the lives of two million more hang by the slenderest of threads.

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How George and I Got Involved

George and I had been talking to each other about it, checking out stories from good reporters like Nicholas Kristof, Samantha Powers, Elizabeth Rubin, Jonathan Karl, Christiane Amanpour and others. Still, the story had been pushed off the front pages by other imperatives. We wondered if we could change that, even if just for a day.

A rally on behalf of the victims in Darfur was scheduled for Sunday, April 30. Organizers hoped for a crowd of 5,000 on the Mall in Washington, D.C.

George and I knew a crowd of that size would be lost on the Mall. The story would not make the newscasts at all or, worse, reporters might emphasize a “disappointing turnout.”

Not long after George won the Academy Award for his role in the movie Syriana, he called and said, “Pop, why don’t we just go over there? I’ll never have more ‘juice’ than I do now and, if the celebrity thing means Darfur will get more attention, let’s use it.”

We knew that our stories would be unlikely to break new ground. I’m a good reporter, but no better than those who had already risked a lot to bring us the true picture. The wild card was George. His worldwide celebrity status might give this tragedy a higher profile than it had ever had.

Our days in the region (April 14-21) were fascinating, if grueling. Our efforts to get where we needed to be comprise a story all its own. But we knew that was only a sidebar. None of it would matter if we couldn’t turn up the heat on the subject of Darfur.

We rushed back to this country with our interviews. George started editing and I started writing. Two days later, George was on The Oprah Winfrey Show. The next day he had a joint news conference with Senators Barack Obama (D-Ill.) and Sam Brownback (R-Kan.). That afternoon, he and I were interviewed on CNN, MSNBC, Fox, NPR, AP Radio and others. The following day, Katie Couric interviewed us on The Today Show. Each time, we mentioned the Sunday rally in Washington, D.C.

When that day came, the crowd was not 5,000. It was at least 30,000, with some estimates north of 70,000. The coverage was positive. The stories made the front page.

The next day, Monday, the State Department sent its Number Two person to Nigeria to get stalled Sudan peace talks back on track. President Bush called al-Bashir directly, urging him to return his representative to the table. He did. Within a week President Bush made one of his best speeches, pledging more food and more help for the peace process. Might this be one genocide we could stop in its tracks?

But, within two days, we were in the maw of the inexorable news cycle. Other stories thundered across the TV screen, pushing aside the farmers, the midwives, the children, the elders, the young girls gathering firewood, all at mortal risk, in Sudan.

Humanitarian organizations, such as Catholic Relief Services (see A Relief Worker's Story) and the International Rescue Committee, continue to do their work, counting on support from private citizens as well as the U.S. government. But the task is huge.

Haunting Faces

Their faces wake me up in the middle of the night. All of them. Are they all right? Did they make it through another day? Will they ever be able to go home and live out their lives in peace?

I don’t know. And I don’t know. And, as time slips away, I don’t know.

To read Nick Clooney’s series about Darfur, go to http://news.cincypost.com and scroll down to “POST ARCHIVED COVERAGE” and then click “Clooneys in Sudan.”


Nick Clooney, a veteran broadcaster for over 50 years, was inducted into the Cincinnati Journalism Hall of Fame. He requested that payment for this article be sent to the International Rescue Committee. Nick and his wife, Nina, live in Augusta, Kentucky.

 

How You Can Help Save Darfur

by Mary Jo Dangel

AFTER SEEING the crisis in Darfur firsthand, George Clooney and his father, Nick, made numerous TV appearances and attended a rally in Washington, D.C., to plead for an end to the genocide. Their journey was the subject of an exhibit at the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Cincinnati, Ohio.

The Freedom Center’s Web site (www.freedomcenter.org/exhibits/in-search-of-darfur3.html) asks, “How many minutes can you spare for Darfur?” It includes relevant interviews, facts, links and a list of ways to save what the United Nations has described as the world’s gravest humanitarian crisis:

• Learn about proposed legislation.
• Send a postcard to President George W. Bush.
• Send an e-mail to your federal elected officials.
• Support African peacekeeping troops.
• Support relief efforts.
• Raise awareness at school.
• Host an interfaith prayer service.
• Read online dialogue about Darfur.

“In my lifetime, we came too late to the Holocaust, to Cambodia, to Rwanda,” wrote Nick Clooney in The Cincinnati Post after returning from Africa. “Might this not be the first genocide the world stopped in its tracks, and might not our little group be a small part of it?”

Donations to help Darfur can be made through Catholic Relief Services (www.crs.org; 209 W. Fayette Street, Baltimore, MD 21201) or through the International Rescue Committee (www.theirc.org; 122 E. 42nd Street, New York, NY 10168).

A Relief Worker's Story

by G. Jefferson Price III

FOR MORE THAN a year and a half, Matthew McGarry coordinated programs in Darfur for Catholic Relief Services (CRS), a humanitarian-relief agency. War in this region of Sudan has created one of the worst catastrophes in Africa’s history.

McGarry worked with 10 CRS workers and more than 100 local Sudanese staffers getting food and other desperately needed supplies to people who were living with practically nothing.

Kulbus, where McGarry lived for a year, is the remotest CRS outpost in western Darfur. Many of the mud-and-brick buildings in the town have been abandoned due to damage from warfare. Kulbus is surrounded by a desert infested with deadly snakes, dangerous spiders the size of a man’s fist and poisonous scorpions.

McGarry says his experience was “by far the best kind of work I’ve ever been able to do” because of “the opportunity to interact with the people; the value of the work.”

Helping the Survivors

The thousands of men, women and children who are scattered in places around the desert where they took refuge are identified as “internally displaced persons” (IDPs), to distinguish them from refugees who have fled the country.

Some ride camels, horses or donkeys. But most walk, sometimes for miles, to get the monthly food rations distributed by CRS and other nongovernmental organizations. McGarry reached them in a diesel-driven Toyota Land Cruiser that could make it through the deep sand in a land where there are no roads.

Because of attacks on aid workers, he took security steps such as radio check-ins and monitoring security reports. When distributing food, his team often spent 12 or more hours in the field. On some occasions, distributions were canceled abruptly when the food failed to arrive, the Land Cruisers broke down or the threat of violence endangered the staff.

“On a day-to-day basis, it’s extremely hard, thankless work. It’s only when you’re able to step back and reflect on it that you feel a sense of fulfillment,” McGarry says. “It’s nice to see the palpable change in the environment, from desperation to hopefulness and an expectation that things will change for the better.”

Catholic Tradition

McGarry, 27, began doing humanitarian work during his college days at the University of Notre Dame, when he worked at a Catholic-run shelter in Des Moines, Iowa, during two summers. He has also been involved in relief work in Nicaragua, Gaza and the West Bank, South Africa and Zimbabwe. Why did he choose this type of work? “I have plenty of friends who are making tremendous amounts of money and who are monumentally unhappy,” he notes.

He credits his parents and a strong Catholic tradition of helping people in need. “My folks were always involved in volunteer work, like soup kitchens,” he says.

This past summer, McGarry settled into a new job in Pakistan, heading a field office in a region devastated by a 7.6-magnitude earthquake last October. Unlike the man-made disaster in Darfur, this time he’s providing shelter and restoring the infrastructure for people whose homes and communities were ripped apart by natural forces.

Some day, the native of Longmeadow, Massachusetts, knows that he’ll settle down somewhere. But for now, he says, “I feel very satisfied and fulfilled. This is what I always wanted to do.”


G. Jefferson Price III was a foreign correspondent and foreign editor of The Baltimore Sun. Since his retirement last year, he has worked as a media consultant for Catholic Relief Services.


 


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